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Please, M.J., leave us with our memories

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© St. Petersburg Times, published May 16, 2001

This time I won't be back.

Not like in 1986, when, after a rewarding/intriguing six months of Atlanta writing experience, it made abundant sense for Leon and Annie Mae Mizell's son to base the rest of his newspaper career in St. Petersburg.

Here's something I always wanted to say: Emulate me, Michael Jordan.

You got away with one NBA comeback, M.J., at heroic levels, capped by a parting shot against Utah that is forever frozen in our minds. But don't try it again. Risk not even baby smudges on a reputation so stratospheric.

I'm certain, Michael, you could still average 20-plus points. There would be spectacular games when you shoot your age with 38 and make several superlative defensive plays as the band played on, Just Like Old Times. But almost for sure there also would be painful, testy, shortfalling swatches.

You would feel good, M.J., at glorious beyond-your-prime stretches, a lot like Jack Nicklaus at 60 when he birdies three holes in four, making the Bear feel golden again and at least temporarily rekindling 1970s competitive zest.

But don't dare it. Especially not with a basketball team as wretched as your Washington Wizards. It would ignite a ticket-sales boom, at least for a while. But don't be mesmerized. Don't be fooled. For common sense's sake, M.J., hang a picture of Willie Mays over your desk, the washed-up athlete flailing in a Mets uniform.

Don't go there.

Swallow hard, M.J., and remember the climax that was beyond the imaginations of Spielberg or Spike the artistic night of June 14, 1998, in Salt Lake City. Understand that the odds are so staggering against you coming close to replicating that, especially as age advances.

Remember ...

The Jazz was ahead 86-85. Drooling to finally win a championship, outdoing the phenomenal Bulls. Final seconds were ticking. Karl Malone embraced a pass, but Jordan pilfered the basketball. Always, the defense of No. 23 was in the same legendary league as his offense. Chicago would get the last shot. Everybody knew who.

As the clock ripped inside of five seconds, Bryon Russell was covering Michael atop the key. With his spindly, adroit legs and a 6-foot-6 body he could amazingly control, Jordan executed an illusion that wowed David Copperfield.

Russell was faked into stumbling submission, M.J. quivering free, pulling up and delivering a textbook 20-foot jump shot, with an unforgettable wrist-flick follow through.

Hold that pose. Make that emotion eternal. Swish! A sixth NBA trophy for the Bulls, before they soon shattered, with Scottie Pippen, Phil Jackson and Jordan springing away in dramatically different directions.

You wonder, what if Michael's baseball whim had worked, producing a solid .290 hitter for the White Sox? What if his bat-and-glove fling had been perpetuated, causing the Jordan II era never to come about with the Bulls?

Oh, what we would've missed.

Oh, what he would've missed.

A Jordan III re-rebirth in the NBA offers no such propensities, with an aging icon reacting to jock-ego frustrations, having so constantly winced while wearing $5,000 business suits as part owner of a franchise that is best explained as the Devil Rays of basketball.

Michael still is a lot thinner than I, but far heavier than the Jordan of either Bulls stanza. He's 38, which is not 32, as when Jordan II evolved. That time it was extraordinary, with Michael wearing No. 45 instead of his magic 23 jersey, performing as spectacularly as ever, averaging 26.5 points.

In his early weeks back, Chicago went 13-4 for the remainder of the 1995 season. That time, the Bulls lost to Orlando in the second round of the playoffs. It was a mere new-Jordan hors d'oeuvre.

A year later, Michael's first full NBA schedule in three seasons, the Bulls had a mind-blowing record of 72-10, the league's best record ever. He averaged 28 or 29 points the remainder of Jordan II.

So remarkable was M.J. that Arnold "Red" Auerbach, an old Boston Celtics coaching god, praised No. 23/45 with words nobody ever expected to hear from the famous puffer of victory cigars.

For more than 30 years, Auerbach had said Bill Russell was unquestionably the best basketball player in history. But one night at his Washington home, sometime in the mid '90s, with a mighty Cuban puff, Red declared, "I guess you'd have to say Russ was only No. 2."

Leave it at that, Michael.

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